I just finished the excellent Finding Our Way: Love and Law in the United Methodist Church. This new publication is a collection of essays by Bishops from across the Connection with a variety of perspectives. We will be reviewing the book as a whole in an upcoming WesleyCast, but I wanted to share a bit from one chapter in particular.
Bishop Michael Lowry from the Central Texas Conference has an excellent chapter on church order. In the course of this chapter, he examines the notion of ‘biblical obedience’ from Bishop Talbert and his supporters, which is little more than a baptized version of civil disobedience. Of course civil disobedience has a long and valuable history in our country and around the world; its ‘biblical’ variant, though, leaves something to be desired. Lowry reflects,
“…it should be carefully noted that when civil disobedience is invoked, Christians have been willing to bear the penalty for such disobedience. This has long been a principle of civil disobedience. The need for order is not ignored but rather embraced on a higher level through the witness of being willing to face the penalty incurred. Presently, the position of biblical obedience, which evokes by some of civil disobedience against church law, is corrupted by the lack of meaningful penalties applied to those engaging in disobeying church law. it is now acceptable for some advocates, some church juries, and some bishops to settle for a twenty-four-hour suspension of the guilty clergyperson. Such a meaningless level of accountability has the effect of giving a person an extra day off for violating church law established by General Conference. Such actions offend the very integrity of the advocated biblical obedience.” (pp.75-76)
In other words, if one wants to invoke the honored history of civil disobedience within the church, part of that legacy is accepting the penalties that come. At present, ‘biblical obedience’ advocates are doing everything they can to avoid consequences. This, as Bishop Lowry points out, effectively neuters the power of strategic disobedience – because instead of forcing onlookers to see unjust penalties carried out, what we have is a de facto change in church law underwritten by certain places in our Connection.
Progressives can’t have it both ways. I can respect the desire to call upon the powerful witness from decades past of civil disobedience, for it is a valuable tool for social change. Much of the force is taken away, however, from biblical dis/obedience when its advocates refuse to face the consequences of their actions. The result from continuous disobedience devoid of consequences has not been and will not be a change in church law, but a continued strain on our covenant life together that could well bend our connection beyond what it can bear.
Let those with ears, hear.
P.S. For more on Finding Our Way, and reactions from other UM leaders, check out the helpful page dedicated to this discussion over at Ministry Matters.